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The Best Biographical Documentaries Ever Made — IndieWire Critics Survey

From "Amy" to "What Happened, Miss Simone?," we're in a golden age of biographical docs. Our panel of film critics picks the best ones ever.

“Listen to Me Marlon”


Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post).

This past weekend saw the release of “Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda,” the latest in a recent string of impressively strong and commercially successful biographical documentaries (other recent standouts include “RBG” and “Won’t You Be my Neighbor?”). 

This week’s question: What is the best biographical documentary ever made?

Siddhant Adlakha (@SidizenKane), Freelance for The Village Voice, /Film

The best and arguably most important documentaries ever made are complimentary pieces by Joshua Oppenheimer, “The Act of Killing” (2013) and “The Look of Silence (2015). They’re set against the backdrop of Indonesia’s 1965-66 genocide, believed to be sponsored by the C.I.A., but they’re each rooted in the lives of singular subjects and their diametrically opposed journeys.

The cleansing, of an estimated three million ethnic Chinese, changed the face of the nation in terrifying ways, created a longstanding socio-political status quo that deifies its perpetrators while continuing to villainize its victims to this day. The first film, “The Act of Killing,” follows mass murderer Anwar Congo over the course of seven years, exploring the personal cognitive dissonance that permeates the culture around him. Congo, an avowed American film fan, re-enacts each of his many killings in stylized manner akin to the genre films he grew up on. Though as he reflects on his actions through a lens of cinema, his bizarre cinematic journey results in the peeling back of the layers of his humanity until he’s forced, as if by something within, to face up to what he’s done.

Its sequel, “The Look of Silence,” tells the story of traveling optometrist Adi Rukun, Oppenheimer’s guide during the production of the first film. Adi sits across from the various people responsible for the murder of his brother in ’65-’66, from local prison guards to people at the highest levels of government in an attempt to find closure. All it would take is those responsible for the massacre owning up to their deeds fifty years after the fact, but the collective dissonance and cultural justifications for the genocide prevent Adi, his blind father (who keeps re-living the horrors of the past) and his culture at large from healing.

Both films feel like impossible feats of filmmaking; watching them feels like being dangerously privy to the darkest parts of the human soul. They are, however, explorations of character, time and place that feel necessary for any person or culture trying to reckon with their past.

Christopher Campbell (@thefilmcynic), Nonfics, Film School Rejects, Thrillist

The best biographical documentaries that mostly look back on a life tend to be based on books. The top three are: “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” about Hollywood mogul Robert Evans; “Life Itself,” about film critic Roger Ebert, and “Man on Wire,” about high-wire legend Philippe Petit. Each of those also benefit from their subjects being alive at the time of filming (or most of the filming) to add an extra level or chapter to the story — even Evans manages to give his story a little extra simply by narrating his own life. I also highly recommend “The Internet’s Own Boy,” which is impressive for how quickly it was made following subject Aaron Swartz’s death.

But the greatest biographical documentaries for me are the two films about Aileen Wuornos made by Nick Broomfield. The first one, “Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer,” is more about her life leading up to the making of the film, told through interviews as well as her murder trial. The second doc, “Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer,” revisits Wuornos as she’s about to be executed. Both documentaries also, as most of Broomfield’s do, contain an autobiographical element on the part of the filmmaker. And between the two of them, we see Broomfield as a more complex character than ever before, particularly as he’s dealing with the fate of Wuornos and the documentarian/subject relationship. It’s a fascinating twofer in that way, and emotionally difficult to come to terms with as a viewer.

Max Weiss (@maxthegirl), Baltimore Magazine

I found it almost impossible to shake Asif Kapadia’s “Amy” which played out like a horror film, except the inescapable monster was fame. It made those of us in the audience—who consumed her records, went to her concerts, and laughed along as late night comedians joked about her debauched and desiccated state—feel complicit in her death. At the same time, it was a powerful, often funny and touching, tribute to a once-in-a-generation talent.

Courtney Howard (@Lulamaybelle), Freelance for FreshFiction, SassyMamaInLA

Asif Kapadia’s “Amy” is a game-changing documentary. Not only does it provide a comprehensive look at powerhouse performer Amy Winehouse’s tragic life, but it also shifts how audiences interpret an artist’s music — specifically their greatest hits. The sly observation of this deeply affecting rock-doc is that Amy’s survivalist anthems of broken-heartedness may have nourished our souls, but they were slowly killing hers. Kapadia spins a heartbreaking tale with unparalleled insight into the siren’s psyche, even finding symbolism in her grimy pink ballet slippers. He avoids the trappings of a “Behind The Music” documentary, dodging talking-head fatigue and favoring unconventional storytelling. Similar to his equally masterful documentary “Senna,” he immortalizes the chanteuse not as a specter in her own story, but as a captivating, fully-realized figure gone too soon.

Carl Broughton II(@Carlislegendary), Editor-in-chief for thefilmera.com

The best biographical documentary ever made has to be “Amy,” about the life and death of famed music artist Amy Winehouse. I remember when she died and hearing “Rehab” on  the air all the time, but otherwise never paid much attention to her outside of that. You can imagine my reaction when “Amy” become of my favorite films of 2015. The film is like Winehouse’s voice: It is powerful and will move you, but there is a layer underneath that is hauntingly beautiful. You are shown the life of a young girl with a dream, a voice, and a sense of fragility that only worsens as she rises to fame. Everything shown is genuine and actual real footage of Winehouse there are no actors, or added scenes to drive a narrative.

The documentary will always be relevant not because it is about a music artist with immense talent dying young, but because of the underlying problems that led to her death. The toxic relationship with her boyfriend, the drugs, and the mental problems she suffered due to the prior mentioned subjects are things we are still tackling as a society. Amy Winehouse will always be a prime example of what happens when we make a spectacle and joke of serious problems. “Amy” is a little longer than 2 hours, but by the time it is over you not only feel you got her full story, but come out appreciating what she did for the music world. Overall Amy is the perfect documentary to showcase that people accept the love they think they deserve.

Deborah Krieger (@debonthearts) BUST Magazine, Paste Magazine

“Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” is as much about the life of Hedy Lamarr, the famously beautiful actress, as is it about the “bombshell” knowledge the film itself drops on unsuspecting viewers. While Lamarr is remembered for her performances in films like “Algiers” and “Samson and Delilah,” she was also an incredibly talented scientific inventor who developed the frequency-hopping technologysoll later used in Bluetooth and wi-fi; “Bombshell” thus brings to a broad audience information that really hadn’t made it far outside of the world of STEM. Following Lamarr from her origins in Vienna, Austria to the heights of Hollywood, “Bombshell” never lets us forget that behind her exquisite features were a dedicated work ethic, a keen intellect, and a lonely, homesick heart.

Pedro Strazza (@pedrosazevedo), B9

I can’t say I am an enthusiast of the biographical documentary genre because while there are some extraordinary productions in the field I’m always under the impression that some of those movies are made only to please some parties (families, executives of the subject, etc) and not to tackle the real self behind that person. It’s because of this feeling that I think one of my favorite movies of the kind is “Cássia”, Paulo Henrique Fontenelle’s 2015 film about the life of Brazilian singer Cássia Eller: although it doesn’t escape a more traditional storytelling and it contemplates the deceased musician in a real tenderly way, the documentary is firm on its portrait of Cássia’s life, tackling thinner topics of hers like the problem with drugs and a few problematic parts of her personality.

What it stands from the documentary for me, though, is the way it reveals the truth (or at least the version that it is trying to build) about the real Cássia, fighting some generalizations and prejudices that were made about the singer even on the wake of her death. Killed by a sudden heart attack that latter was attributed to an excess of work load (she did one hundred shows in seven months, according to her manager), Eller’s decease at the time was falsely linked to drugs by some news magazines, which contributed to a legal dispute about the fate of her son, Francisco – it was the musician’s wish that his caring would be assumed by her partner, Maria Eugênia, if anything happened, but the parents of the biological father tried to intervene. This way, it’s fascinating to me how “Cássia” in the end poses itself as some sort of justice corrector of mistakes made in the past, a feeling that in my judgment is present on the best productions of the genre.

Luke Hicks (@lou_kicks), Film School Rejects, Birth.Movies.Death., Chicago Reader

“Crumb” (1994) directed by Terry Zwigoff. There are many great biographical documentaries, but none as singular as “Crumb.” Zwigoff digs deep into the controversial life and mind of cartoonist Robert Crumb. It is a sad, troubling, and evocative work that will stir you to think in the wake of its disquieting cast of characters (there are shots inside his family’s house that have been burned into my memory forever). The film thrives in its bizarre developments as Zwigoff leaps fearlessly into the ethical perspective of art philosophy, questioning, alongside Crumb, the very nature of Crumb’s work and its value to society.

Hoai-Tran Bui (@htranbui), /Film

So many documentaries focus on the brilliant, tortured artist — but how many turn the camera on his long-suffering wife? “Cutie and the Boxer” gives fascinating insight into a troubled, toxic, but ultimately loving relationship between two aging artists coming to grips with their codependence.

For the 40 years that they had been married, artist Noriko Shinohara lived in the shadow of her husband Ushio Shinohara, a gifted artist whose use of boxing gloves in his art had him declared one of the most promising artists of the ’70s New York art scene. But as the elderly couple struggles to make their rent while Ushio bemoans his feverish glory days, Noriko begins to tire of always supporting the genius. She starts telling her story through her alter ego “Cutie,” a talented and abused young artist whose life plays out in surreal illustrations which are sprinkled throughout Zachary Heinzerling’s documentary. “Cutie and the Boxer” is a touching and slightly tragic portrait of a pair of artists whose love has been defined and hindered by art. It’s a beautiful little example of how behind every “brilliant artist,” there’s a just as brilliant woman.

Kristen Lopez (@Journeys_Film), Culturess, The Young Folks

Biographical documentaries often focus on the life and times of one person, but they tend to ignore the role of lineage in those stories, and how the life and times of that one person can have ramifications completely unknown in the moment. This is a fancy way of saying I might be pushing the limits of this question when I say the best biographical documentary ever made is “Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father.”

Director Kurt Kuenne started out making a documentary about his best friend, Andrew Bagby and his murder. What Kuenne ended up doing was memorializing his best friend and Bagby’s young son who never knew his father. There’s a lot of sadness that runs throughout the film that, at times, makes you hurt. You hurt at what could have been, at what will never be known. In the end, all that’s left is what remains on-screen, family and friends telling the audience (and Zachary himself) about the man Andrew Bagby was. It’s a story that will make you cry because the guy sounded so average, he could have been anyone and it’s a shame that the circle of death that swirled around him is what made him famous. But, at the same time, if these tragic events had never happened, audiences would never know his name. It’s a movie that leaves you with questions not just about the nature of life and death, parentage and paternity, but how film narrative creates immortality.

Sean Mulvihill (@NotSPMulvihill), FanboyNation.com

I mulled over this question for a while. I thought about possibly selecting Werner Herzog’s amazing examination of the eccentric Timothy Treadwell, “Grizzly Man,” or Terry Zwigoff’s intimate portrait of legendary comic artist Robert Crumb, “Crumb.” Then someone sent me a text and my phone rang out with its customized text tone, famed director Brain De Palma exclaiming, “Holy mackerel!” Then I realized that the answer was in my pocket with Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach’s documentary “De Palma.” Is it the greatest biographical documentary ever made? Probably not, but it’s certainly my favorite as it allows a great director to look back on his life and career in his own words.

Completely removed from any hopes of working within the modern studio system and knowing that his legacy is secure thanks to a critical reevaluation, the Brian De Palma shown in “De Palma” is a filmmaker with plenty of entertaining stories and no need to play nice. The result is a film that takes into the creative process of a great filmmaker, rife with amusing anecdotes about his famous collaborators and moments of earnest reflection about his critical and commercial flops.

Of course, almost all biographical documentaries have an element of hagiography to them. These are the type of movies that would exist without having some kind of myth to build upon, and “De Palma” only bucks this trend because Paltrow and Baumbach allow Brian De Palma to build his own myth in his own words without inserting their own commentary on their subject’s claims. When compared to the similar and saccharine portrait of a filmmaking legend, “Spielberg,” “De Palma” stands out so much because it takes on the unvarnished attitude of its subject, becoming a perfect reflection and distillation of his body of work. It’s that style that pulls De Palma devotees, like myself, further and further into the film. He’s talented. He’s prickly. He’s egotistical. He’s one of cinema’s greatest. Holy mackerel!

Ethan Warren (@ethanrawarren), Bright Wall/Dark Room

I’m generally skeptical of the “talking heads and archival footage” school of documentary. I find it hard to fully connect with what often feels to me like a History Channel special. But “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” makes use of and subverts our expectations of the form to create what’s both a heartwreching exploration of the complex relationship between creativity and mental illness, and a searing interrogation of our responsibility as consumers of art, that’s more skillful and powerful than any work of nonfiction I’ve encountered before or since.

Emily Sears (@emily_dawn), Birth.Movies.Death., Fandor

Jacob Bernstein’s documentary “Everything is Copy” is a moving tribute to his mother, Nora Ephron. As a fan of Nora’s movies, I enjoyed this personal look into her life’s work from the perspective of those closest to her. A mix of talking heads, archival footage, and young actresses reading Ephron’s words may not make for a groundbreaking documentary, but her exceptional life story is a subject that captivates. If you’re like me, after watching the doc you’ll seek out every word Nora Ephron ever wrote and every movie she ever made. Her strong voice and fearless sense of humor are a master class and inspiration to female writers and filmmakers, and they will always be missed.

Joel Mayward (@joelmayward), Cinemayward.com, Freelance

It’s hard to say if “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is by Banksy or about Banksy; a philosophical inquiry into the fundamental nature of art and truth, or a prankster just trolling us all. Most likely a mashup of these motives and more, Banksy’s 2010 meta-documentary asks “what is art?” and provokes us to seek the answer(s), wherever that takes us. Ostensibly filmed by goofball Frenchman Thierry Guetta in his amateur pursuit of the enigmatic graffiti artist, Banksy turns the cameras around on Guetta, and thus on the audience as well.

The film’s title reminds us that we often leave an art gallery or museum through their gift shop with an expectation to buy a trinket to remind us of our experience. The art is not simply there to be enjoyed and appreciated; it is now a commodity to be purchased and consumed. Whether we like it or not, our consumer culture defines value monetarily. This is nothing new; for hundreds of years and across divergent cultures, artists have needed wealthy patrons to fund projects. What is new is how technology, social media, marketing, and the American economic system have all intensified this process. Bizarre, subversive, and often hilarious, “Exit Through the Gift Shop” questions and critiques celebrity culture, capitalism, and Western culture itself in the best way: by making interesting art and inviting us to consider it.

Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail/Film Festival Today

This a very rich topic to explore, and choosing just one is difficult, especially since there has been such a treasure trove of terrific recent biographical documentaries. I very much enjoyed “Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda,” for example, but it is merely one of many films of the past few years that have moved me, a list that includes Raoul Peck’s 2016 “I Am Not Your Negro,” Liz Garbus’ 2015 “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” Sting Björkman’s 2015 “Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words,” and Sarah Polley’s 2012 portrait of her late mother, “Stories We Tell.” That last film has the advantage of pushing genre boundaries, as well, using actors to recreate past events, and only revealing that device (sorry! plot spoiler!) at the end, making for an especially stimulating cinematic experience.

In that spirit, I’d like to go back over 20 years and cast my ultimate vote for Ruth Ozeki Lounsbury’s 1996 “Halving the Bones,” which similarly challenges the conventions of documentary filmmaking. In the movie, Lounsbury traces her family history on the maternal side, following the titular bones (those of her grandmother) on their journey from Japan to America, a trip that allows her to revisit the immigrant saga of her mother, as well as her own life as a biracial woman. Mixing real archival footage with reenactments – all blended together in one exciting whole – Lounsbury creates an evocative and poignant tribute to her foremothers, and to her own indomitable will as cineaste and historian.

Daniel Joyaux (@thirdmanmovies), Freelance for Vanity Fair, The Verge, MovieMaker Magazine, and The Independent

Despite a countless number of great biographical documentaries, particularly in recent years, I can only think of three that truly demand the cinematic experience of the big screen: Corrina Belz’s “Gerhard Richter – Painting,” Brett Morgen’s “Jane,” and Wim Wenders’s “The Salt of the Earth.” I highly recommend all three, but 2017’s “Jane” (about primatologist Jane Goodall) is my pick for the absolute best. Every cinephile can (and should!) answer for themselves what set of characteristics constitute peak cinema, but for me it’s really just the artful interplay of three things—cinematography, editing, and music—when deployed in service of a story or characters I care about. That’s all it takes to get my heart in a pitter-patter, and it explains why I think the last 10 minutes of “The Last of the Mohicans” are the true apex of the form (a point I will gladly fight anyone on).

“Jane” gets all of this in a way that overwhelms me. The restored and color-corrected footage (shot by Hugo Van Lawick in the ’60s and ’70s) is simply gorgeous, and the Philip Glass score that emotes it is powerful. There’s a final, climactic montage where the score reaches operatic heights, and those flickering images moved me to watery eyes both times I saw the film. One of my critic friends didn’t like “Jane” because he said it devolved into hagiography and never mentioned the valid criticisms of her work. Maybe he’s right, I don’t know. I’ll embarrassingly admit I knew very little about Goodall before seeing the film. But I also think the relative success or failure of “Jane” as a perfect portrayal of its subject misses the point. Regardless of how well it embodies great journalism, it absolutely embodies great cinema.

Luiz Gustavo (@luizgvt), Cronico de Cinema

“João Bénard da Costa: Outros Amarão as Coisas que eu Amei” (translates roughly as “João Bénard da Costa: Others Will Love the Things I Have Loved”) is a Portuguese documentary about a great film critic. It is less about the person, João Bénard da Costa, and more about the world he lived and his passion. Movies, mostly. Manuel Mozos, the director, cares enough to take us through the didactic tropes that constitutes a bio doc, the dates and places thing.

But he knows that that’s the path to make João Bérnard in nothing but an echo, a shadow of itself, in the film. To know someone like him is, actually, to know what touched him deeply. That’s why, as we learn about his life and work, we’re also walking through the movies that he loved the most: Lubitsch’s “The Shop Around the Corner”, Mankiewicz’s “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” and, of course, Ray’s “Johnny Guitar”. It is very hard not to fall in love with these movies, like the title foreshadows. The final line, a frase used by João Bénard da Cost when writing about Kiarostami’s “Taste of Cherry”, encapsulates the whole spirit of this very delicate film: “Fundamental é a vida. A vida continua sempre. É de vida que fala este filme de morte” (“Life is fundamental. Life goes on forever. It is about life that this movie of death speaks of”). After watching this documentary, those words will haunt you forever.

Carlos Aguilar (@Carlos_Film), Freelance

Using a singularly spirited time period at Studio Ghibli as her focal point, Mami Sunada’s “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness” captures spontaneous examples of the shared genius, friendly rivalry, and artistic idiosyncrasies of the three men behind one of the most beloved animation houses to ever exist: directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, and producer Toshio Suzuki. Sunada gained access to shoot the daily routines of Miyazaki and his cohort during the concurrent production of “The Wind Rises” and “the Tale of the Princess Kaguya,” which at the time were believed to be the final works by the two auteurs.

Miyazaki’s grumpy, humorous, and at times bleak observations about the world are interspersed with archival footage from his early days in animation. “Kingdom” is as much a documentary about the studio itself, as it is about the man at the center of it and those who, through their complementing talents, have been part of his remarkable creative life. With Takhata’s recent passing, the final minutes of the film now serve as a heartwarming eulogy to his friendship with Miyazaki and his own breathtaking oeuvre.


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